I preparation for one of several personal finance educational talks I give each year to residents and medical students, I’ve been thinking about a good analogy for learning personal finance as a physician. You know, to motivate those that haven’t to take the first step and those that have to stay the course. Well, turns out that learning personal finance is a lot like learning human anatomy, and just as interesting.
The first time I saw a dead body
The first, and I mean the very first thing we did as freshly minted medical students was proceed directly to the anatomy lab. Entering early on Monday morning, nervous enough from first day jitters, my stomach started to roll on the long walk down the hall to the foreboding double doors labeled “Human Anatomy Lab”.
Mind you, the school was built in the 1950s. Sunshine yellow cinderblocks were punctuated by featureless wooden doors laid over large green floor tiles all capped with a white paneled ceiling. Orange glowing sconce lights dimly illuminated the hall like the ignis fatuus and made the walk down the hall seem like a Hitchcock movie dream scene. The more nervous of my young brethren made inappropriate jokes, the calmer ones just stared oblivious and the die hard future surgeons walked chest out head held high…. but we were all nervous as hell on that walk.
The smell is the first thing one notices when getting anywhere near a cadaver, or a student that has been in the cadaver lab within the previous 24 hours. Formalin, some alcohols, aldehydes and a pinch of salt, mix well and pour. Delicious….
Next comes the light, I mean a pinpoint pupil producing white light a quantity of which I challenge would make it tough for an ant to find a shadow. Meet your 4 tank partners, put on gloves and open the tank.
Now, opening a stainless steel, ice cold tank of roughly coffin shaped proportions actually takes all 4 students the first time it’s done. The 2 lids, quite heavy, must be opened simultaneously like cellar doors leading to a basement, droplets of yellow fluid dripping from the hinges onto the ungloved wrist and forearm (mental note, clean that up later). Eagerly anticipating my first cadaveric view, I peered into the illuminated tank. Nothing…. Just some yellow fluid and a vague translucent hint at a human form beneath the surface.
A pulley and lever mechanism on each short end of the tank, linked by metal cables vaguely reminiscent of Doctor Frankenstein’s holding device for transferring his Monster, completes the task of exposing the body. The lever is pulled down, 2 people at each end, and locks into place like throwing a large switch to an electric chair. As the lever is lowered, so the body rises, excellent.
She was older, seventy I guessed, face-up and slightly overweight with grey shiny cold-looking skin; she was most certainly dead. I was shifting to “science mode” now, repeating the mantra “just raw materials” as Victor Frankenstein said….raw materials.
“Now, flip your body over” says the instructor, an octogenarian anatomist. “Excuse me” says the student in his mind, “Flip the body?”. Why wasn’t this already done, Lord knows I paid enough for this school? Can’t we just start on the front? Is this flipping really a 4 person job? My shoulder hurts, I don’t think it’s safe. So much for science mode young student doctor.
Lucy, as in Juicy Lucy (Group agreed name prior to flipping), was elevated 2 feet above her preserving pool on a stainless tray a few inches larger than her body on all sides. She bathed in a small pool of fluid collected in the slightly concave stainless elevation tray on which she rested. I don’t recall who grabbed her first, but suddenly we all had hands on her backside. She was slick and cold and heavy. Heavier than appeared and firm as a cold chicken. I retrospect, the smart students were already showing themselves because when we flipped her toward me, after going on her side she just sort fell over, landed and splashed fluid onto the body and faces of the 2 students not smart enough to flip away from themselves. Salty……
A few short weeks later, we were veterans of dissection. Sandwiches were eaten on nearby closed tanks, pieces of accidentally flung human tissue on your lip wiped off quickly because you’re in the zone and you can’t be bothered by such minor details. We learned anatomy as every part of that body was dissected over the following year. Skulls were sawed open and brains removed, heart chambers exposed, eyeballs bisected; we were hungry for knowledge. The more we knew, the more we wanted to know.
Now, anatomy is a distant memory, and my time in the lab is one of the most pleasurable in recent times. How is this like personal finance?
You are terrified the first time you encounter it
The first step is the hardest. As a young physician, or whatever, it’s clear you need to learn about finance, but the task is daunting, you don’t know where to start. Just get in there, put your gloves on and flip the body! Buy a basic finance book (preferably from a recommended list of a trusted blog) and start reading. Before you know it you’ll be eating sandwiches on the tanks of Index funds, opening backdoor Roth IRAs like skulls and wiping off pieces of human tissue from your lip like you would discard a “hot stock tip”.
You know you need it
If you are reading this, then you know you need to learn about personal finance. It’s inescapable, like anatomy to the physician. You simply cannot be a good physician without it. You feel that you simply can’t live up to your potential without empowering yourself with personal finance knowledge. No one can learn it for you and you don’t trust those who say they do wihtout knowing a bit more yourself.
It builds momentum, the more you know the more you want to know
Anatomy is cumulative in that more knowledge leads to better understanding of the organs you’ve already studied and the ones yet to come. The brain makes much more sense once you’ve had Neuroanatomy, the heart just pumps you up more once you’ve looked at it under the microscope in Histology lab (intercalated disks anyone?). Finance is the same way. Read just a little and a few doors open, keep reading and those doors turn into questions. Then you can get detailed and read a book on a specific topic (municipal bonds) or post a forum comment on an aspect specific to you. On a side note, speaking of books, Mary Shelley’ Frankenstein is classic. The best movie rendition for my money is 1994s Mary Shelley’ s Frankenstein starring Robert DeNiro and Kenneth Branagh)
Finance is very front loaded
I use anatomy every day in my practice. However, I haven’t been to the lab in a long time. Most of the knowledge is in my head at this point, but a few times a week I open up a Netter’s or go online to check out some specific question about a patient. The 200-300 hours spent in the lab during school are now reduced to 10-20 hours per year. Finance is similar, you won’t be re-reading those basic books very often although a paragraph or chapter may be pertinent from time to time. Index funds, asset allocation, stock to bond ratio, tax-loss harvesting, etc. – those are the muscles, bones, vessels or what have you of it all. Seen one bone, seen em all, with a few exceptions that may pertain to you. You’ll be asking specific questions from time to time and the rest of the time, your plan just works without you. The money is auto-deposited, the accounts pay dividends, set it and forget it.